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How to buy a cell phone as a gift

Shopping for a cell phone as a gift takes more work than you might expect. CNET guides you through the holiday shopping process.

Josh Miller/CNET

Cell phones can make excellent holiday gifts, but purchasing one for someone other than yourself is more complicated than shopping for other gadgets. Unlike a tablet or a shiny new camera, a cell phone requires a service plan to use any voice or data features (otherwise you wind up with a very expensive paperweight). In some cases, you won't even be able to leave the store or complete your online order until you get that angle set up. And beyond just being an additional expense, that service may require a long-term commitment.

There's no reason to stress, though, because CNET is here to help. As long as you keep the following tips in mind, it's very possible to buy the hottest handset as the perfect gift.

No surprises
In general, I don't recommend buying a cell phone without checking if your recipient even wants one. From the type of phone to the choice of carrier, there are just too many variables here. What's more, unless you're willing to sign a contract under your name (and be responsible for any subsequent payments), you can't activate contract-based service for someone else if that person is not present.

Know the carrier
Complaining about your cell phone carrier is a popular pastime for many, but that doesn't mean everyone would switch if they had the chance. If Uncle Kyle, for example, has an affordable service plan, loves a particular phone, or gets great reception where he needs it, he's likely to stick with his carrier, even if its customer service is awful.

iPhone 5S
You may love the iPhone 5S, but your friend may not. Sarah Tew/CNET

That's why it's important that you find out if he's willing to switch and which carrier he'd like to use. Verizon Wireless may be great for you, but if Big Red's network doesn't cover Kyle's house, then even the fanciest phone will be useless. Also, if your uncle is still under contract, he may not be able to jump ship without paying an early-termination fee. Since that could be well over $150, ensure that your kindness won't result in a bite out of his wallet.

Know the contract situation
While we're on the subject, find out how long ago your recipient bought his or her current phone. Some carriers limit how often customers can sign a contract and pay the subsidized price for a new device. So if Cousin Caroline just bought a phone three months ago, she may not be able to upgrade now at a discount. Also, quite a few people may not want to sign a new two-year contract at all. They may enjoy the freedom of month-to-month service (see below) or they may have a really good grandfathered plan -- like one with unlimited data, for instance -- that they don't want to give up.

Know what they want
A cell phone can be a deeply personal gadget. Unlike a TV or a printer, you carry it with you at all times and there's a good chance that you're interacting with it constantly throughout the day. If a handset isn't intuitive or it just doesn't work, you (or anyone else) is going to get irritated pretty quickly.

Nexus 5
For some people the Nexus 5 may be more than they need. James Martin/CNET

Consider also that some people see their phone as an extension of their personality. So before you buy, do your research on what kind of phone your recipient wants. Sure, the iPhone 5S may be latest and greatest Apple device, but not everyone wants one. Or to put it another way, you may love the Nexus 5, but your spouse may hate it.

To boil it down, don't buy more phone than your recipients needs. Smartphones deliver a certain "wow" factor, but your brother Tyler may just want a cheap, easy-to-use handset that makes calls and doesn't require a data plan. So do your homework on which kind of features your recipient will want.

Buy as a promise
Yeah, this takes some of the fun out of the gift-giving process, but the promise of a new cell phone can make an awesome gift. That way, your recipient can pick out the phone he or she wants and arrange for service while you just hand over your credit card. If you want that person to be able to unwrap something by the Christmas tree, you can use a toy cell phone as a stand-in or purchase gift cards from a specific retailer. Another option is to buy an accessory like a case with a gift card inside. Just make sure the case is something that your giftee will like.

Family plan
A great surprise gifting option, particularly for parents shopping for a handset for their kids or anyone buying for a spouse, is adding a new line to a family or shared plan. These plans allow you to arrange for service without having your recipient present. Of course, just observe the above recommendation for knowing which handset he or she wants. And if you're a parent buying for your kids, educate them on how many messages they can send per month and how much data and voice minutes they can use. Another great point about most family plans is that not all participants need to live at the same address.

LG Exalt
On the other hand, the LG Exalt may not be enough. James Martin/CNET

Unlocked or prepaid
Another way to keep your gift a surprise is to buy an unlocked or prepaid phone. In either case, you can purchase a handset directly from the retailer and skip the service option completely. It's then up to your recipient to activate the phone, but he will have more freedom to choose the service plan that best fits his needs.

Up until last March, prepaid cell phone service in the United States fell mostly under the domain of smaller carriers with entry-level devices. Yet, that changed when T-Mobile announced that it was ditching contracts completely and moving exclusively to month-to-month service. As part of the switch, customers can either buy a phone outright at full price, or pay it off in monthly installments. Then last July, T-Mobile said customers would have the opportunity to upgrade twice a year.

The grace period
Sometimes, even a gift bought with the best intentions may not work out. So if that happens, know that most contract carriers will let you return a phone within a specific time frame. This grace period may vary slightly, but usually it lasts 30 days. If you take advantage of it, you can return the phone and end a contract without paying an early-termination fee. You will, however, have to pay for any voice or data service you've used, and you may incur a restocking fee, as well. The gift giver isn't required to pay such a fee, but it would be a nice gesture.

Good luck and may the shopping gods smile upon you!

Do you have any other tips for buying a cell phone as a gift? If so, tell me below.